The story presented in this post is Jean’s, published with permission from her on my blog. I am honored to be able to share this touching and poignant story.
Dire Straights – Jean Maggrett
From the time we were born, my brother Bill and I spent our summer holidays at a cottage built by our grandparents in Northern Michigan, near the top of the mitt where the great lakes of Huron and Michigan connect. Day-long beach picnics by Lake Michigan were a family ritual for four generations. We’d swim in the fresh, cold water, then gather around a bon-fire of driftwood to cook weiners and marshmallows while we watched the “million dollar” sunset over the water.
One summer when my brother was fifty-two, he suggested that we hike out the Waugoshance Peninsula which extends out into Lake Michigan, separating the straits of Mackinac from Cecil Bay. Appropriately, the area is called Wilderness State Park. There are few roads , no buildings or modern improvements, only a small parking lot at the end of a long gravel road.
With us on our expedition that day were Bill’s eighteen year-old son Carl and Link, an old fraternity friend from college. My brother told us that he had flown over the straits and state park in a small plane and then dreamed of walking out to the point someday.
It was a beautiful summer Sunday in early August. Skies were blue, the water calm and clear, gently lapping the shore. On the bottom, brightly colored boulders seemed within easy reach but were deeper than they appeared.
We started hiking along the shore. It was a familiar environment though we’d never been at that particular beach. Sand pipers darted and tottered ahead of us at the edge of the water. A few sea gulls sailed above. The dry sand made a vibration noise as we trudged toward Waugoshance point. To the North, we gazed at the straits, to the South, Cecil Bay. The beach above North, we gazed at the straits, to the south, Cecil Bay. The beach above high water supported grasses and shrubs.
Eventually we discovered the peninsula was cut by a small, shallow inlet. It was fun to wade across. Soon after, we came to another similar inlet, wider and deeper then the first, but still easy to cross. At the next one, which was much wider than the first two, we gazed in dismay at the distance. We agreed to stop for a break, a snack and some discussion.
While sharing cheese, crackers, peanut butter and apples, Bill talked about how the land looked from the air. He assured us he remembered where there was a sand bar that he was certain we could find. He removed his long pants and I remarked about how his brightly patterned swim trunks that seemed to reveal a secret side to his ordinarily conventional engineer’s exterior.
As we headed out into the water, the youngest of us plunged ahead, electing to swim the entire distance. The cold water quickly became deeper and I began to feel reluctant. When it reached my chest, I felt movement around my feet, then calves, rising to my hips.
At once, I yelled to the others that i was turning back. As I was bringing my legs up to the surface, I shot a quick glance around toward the shore and at Bill. He was shouting and fighting the water. His words were garbled but I made out the last one.
I felt panic close off my breath. Then suddenly, my Sensei (Aikido teacher) Bob Nadeau’s teaching came to me as a transforming tide of ease: “Be okay with yourself, breath and flow.” The panic was gone and I heard my inner voice say, ” can be all right here for as long as is necessary,” and I stretched out flat as a lily pad above the hungry undercurrent.
From that position, I wasn’t able to look around or kick my feet. Only my hands moved me back toward the shore. I just gazed at the blue above, breathing and acknowledging for myself that I was okay.
After a while, I wanted to test the depth: If I had headed in the right direction, I should be near shore by now, I thought. Venturing to touch bottom, I dropped a leg down. Immediately, I felt the undertow sucking me down and the adrenaline rising in my throat. I retracted my leg and vowed to make no more tests but remain a lily pad until I brushed the shore. Moments later, I did touch land and stood up, looking out over the water. I could see Link twenty-five yards out and Carl a bit further.
Raising my arms above my head, I felt like a lighthouse signalling sailors in distress. I knew my brother drowned. Then I thought, no, he was swimming under water, and would surface any minute now. Then I realized the real truth was that Bill never came along with us on this hike.
Then in my mind’s eye, I got a vivid picture of Bill emerging from the kitchen door of the cottage saying, “Hi! How was your hike?” Next came the thought that I had somehow got in the wrong location because the words were: I’m from California. I don’t belong here and I must be leaving right away!”
Soon the other two survivors came out of the water. Carl’s words cut my fantasies when he asked, “Where’s Willie?” I said, “I’m afraid we’ve lost him.”
Link described how he was near Bill when he hollered for help. He said he couldn’t do more than advise him to take it easy and float on top of the water. Bill’s panic paralyzed him, he sank and he was swept out with the current.
Link went back to the car to go for help. Carl and I stood on the beach and cried. Some other people appeared, walking nearby, unaware of the drowning.
Wouldn’t they die if they knew what just happened?” Carl said. We walked in shock back to the parking lot. A medical emergency vehicle arrived and the driver gave us hope by saying frog men were about to fly in on a helicopter. When he was brought back up it might be possible to revive him due to the preservative quality of the cold water.
Four hours later my brother’s body was found and flown to St. Ignace Hospital. We rushed there by car. A Doctor greeted us with the news that Bill could not be revived. His body had been moved to a funeral parlor across the road. We were to go identify the body.
There in a small room off the main office lay my brother looking very purple. His eyes seemed to have X’s in them, like the dead birds in cartoons. He certainly was gone.
We drove home in silent dread. Upon our arrival back at the cottage, we would be calling Bill’s wife Diane and our mother. I asked my aunt to make the call. The more people I told, the heavier I felt, until I finally just sank into sleep.